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Whole Cluster Fermented Primitivo?Really?

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

Classic Whole Cluster Fermentation in Burgundy

The first time that I was introduced to the whole cluster fermentation method was during the 2012 vintage at the Gary Farrell Winery in the Russian River. I had very little knowledge about the practical application of whole cluster fermentation other than that I had found out the technique had been used by a famous domain in Burgundy called Domaine Dujac.

When To Use Whole Cluster Fermentation

That was when I was apprenticing with Kusuda Wines in Martinborough, New Zealand during the spring harvest in the same year (or I should say it was the fall harvest in the southern hemisphere). The winemaker and the owner of Kusuda, Hiro, often included whole clusters in his reds during primary fermentation, but 2012 was one of the rainiest and hardest vintages in their recent history in the area. As a result, he had given up on using whole clusters for that year. Wines fermented with whole clusters, especially Pinot Noir impart fine complex aromas and texture if they were done correctly. However, I clearly recall Gary Farrell’s winemaker, Theresa Heredia, a French trained winemaker who was new to the winery in 2012 explained to me the difficulty of whole cluster fermentation. The other end of the spectrum is over extraction of phenolics from the stems and steaminess and grippy tannin and astringency in the mouth if not done wisely! 

Learning Practical Whole Cluster Fermentation

Since then I, as a relatively mature intern (only in age!) had experienced many different winemaking styles mostly in the Russian River and the Sonoma Coast, from old world styles with some whole cluster inclusion typically suited for long aging with higher phenolic extractions. Whereas popular California Pinot Noir winemaking style was to use de-stemmed berries. I concluded that there is no way to make great wines with 100% whole cluster using grapes from California, which tend to mature a lot earlier than that of Burgundy leaving many green stems until I encountered a 100% whole cluster fermented zinfandel made by Scholium Project some years ago. Their Zinfandel bottle was one of a kind, showcasing zinfandel’s fruit character of the sunshine state of California, with such an explosion of red fruits in nose and taste that I was not able to let go of the idea of making 100% whole cluster wine someday. My dream came true when I met Ross Cannard, a young purveyor of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, who had been trained with the biodynamic grape growing method from the Coturi’s older brother’s vineyard management company. He showed me around a tiny Primitivo (genetically the same as Zinfandel, which was confirmed by UC Davis’s geneticist Carole Meredith) vineyard called the Benguerel Vineyard, located at the back of a hippie general store in the town of Kenwood, Sonoma.

Primitovo & Whole Cluster

I immediately fell in love with the site, with no sulfur application, organically grown vineyard that he was farming for the first time. I used to recall Theresa telling me that Zinfandel was one of the hardest grapes, even with her years of winemaking experience, to predict perfect ripeness due to the uneven ripeness of each berry during maturity. However, I decided to buy a small amount of grapes from him, and have kept visiting the vineyard, almost every week in the early morning before my full-time job. Yes, sooner or later I found that she was so correct. Brix has started shooting up, but the colors of grape berries was so uneven. The amount of malic acid, which is typically an indicator of grape maturity and decreases as the grapes metabolize malic acid, never went down! If we pick too early with high malic acid, we usually risk the consequence of lowering acid too much after conversion of malic acid during malolactic fermentation into lactic acid.

Picking Decision

I was very fortunate being able to convince him to let me pick the slowest ripening rows while we are pushing with a long wait. Finally, in the morning of September 24, we hand-picked together with Ross' crew and his friends. About 1 and half ton of grapes was brought immediately to the winery.

Now the moment of the truth. The next big challenge for us (for me and Medlock Ames’ cellar crew who have been fermenting my lots since 2018 vintage) was to figure out how to soundly finish primary fermentation with so many scraggy stems of the whole cluster. In order for the yeasts to start fermenting, they need some sugar with juices, but unless we crush the grapes, it will take a long time to get enough juice for the lot to start fermenting if we don’t manipulate the condition. On top of that, I insisted to ferment with indigenous yeast, which put us in a high risk if we didn’t do it right. I have asked the interns to stomp grapes, an old-fashioned European method, which we no longer practice, at least in California anymore. We kept stomping & stomping, pitch-forking to mix the clusters, all manual labor! We finally pressed grapes right before the Kincade Fire, which hit us in the broader area of Sonoma County on Oct 23, 2019 and burned about 75% of the winery’s property in the Chalk Hill district, which took almost two weeks to contain the fire. 2019 became one of the fire vintages with bitter memories of recurring fires, and the wine behaved like a child with a tantrum and needed a lot of care, as if it was carrying a scar of the fire. 

Aroma & Texture Bomb

I am very pleased to say that this wine came around to exhibit it’s potential, showcasing the vibrancy of the vineyard and the grower, and the variety with so much added character benefited from 100% whole cluster fermentation, with so much pleasant aroma and complex umami taste and the texture in the mouth. I am very excited that this wine is finally due for bottling in mid-August and scheduled be released in late fall, approximately only 70 cases production.

I can’t wait to see you getting the taste of such an interesting wine, crafted with so much passion and effort by everyone who participated in this my dreamy project!!


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